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Finding Your Next GC: Succession Planning for Corporate Law Departments

The general counsel of a business is integral to executing the company's strategy, handling litigation, overseeing compliance and, ultimately, the bottom line. So why do corporate law departments tend to pay so little attention to succession planning for the role?

Many GCs simply feel they don’t have enough time to look ahead, given day-to-day work and immediate needs to advance their strategic priorities. Moreover, not everyone thinks that succession planning is in his or her best interest. And, all too often, a burgeoning plan is sabotaged by a lack of progress in identifying and training successors.

How can a law department break through inertia and make a solid GC succession plan?

Start with assessment

At any business, stakeholders inside and outside the legal department should assist in reviewing:

  • How stakeholders outside the department view its function;
  • The current pipeline of personnel;
  • The likelihood of the GC or other senior managers leaving (and when);
  • Metrics including the ages of key personnel, the age and suitability of people in the pipeline, revenue dependence, firm culture, and the types of files and work;
  • The required skillset:
  • Hard skills, such as experience with key legal issues and regulations, prior industry experience, and knowledge of the local community and businesses;
  • Softer skills, such as leadership style, teamwork, communication skills, relationships with key players;
  • In view of the strategic plan, what legal and management skillsets will be needed five or 10 years in the future? Focus equally on management and legal competencies;
  • Who will lead the legal department on an interim basis if the position opens up unexpectedly?
  • Is continuity the primary priority or does the department need a change agent?

How a law firm can help your business

  • As the owner of a business, you can find outside lawyers to be very helpful in the process. Consider:
  • Can the law firm advise on relevant, upcoming regulatory and legal changes?
  • Can it commit to providing an experienced attorney as a loaned GC in the event of an abrupt transition?
  • Might a firm lawyer be suitable to become the new GC?
  • Can the firm help to identify “off the radar” candidates in the larger legal community, including other law firms or companies?

The plan is more than a notion

Like strategic plans, succession plans are nearly worthless if there is no document outlining the specific challenge, how it will be addressed, the process for implementation and procedures for monitoring and accountability.

Some tips for developing a plan:

  • Build a profile that is suitable for a headhunter, based on hard and soft skills, of the ideal successor.
  • If successor talent is identified within the company, establish a formal mentoring and training program; if not, establish tactics for identifying a successor and handling day-to-day responsibilities during a transition.
  • Document, in detail, current processes of the legal department. Update the document each time the staff handles a new type of matter, creating a roadmap for the next GC.
  • Put the succession plan in writing and establish dates for deliverables (including quarterly, written reports followed by discussion).
  • Make one senior person accountable for implementing the plan, with regular reports to C-level management.
  • Treat the plan as an ongoing process that changes as the business changes.

After you have identified a successor, you need to groom, test and train them with legal and personal skills, and constantly reevaluate whether the identified people are proving their potential to flourish.

A broader discussion of this topic can be found in this article published in the Association of Corporate Counsel Docket.

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